The five 2012 campaigns that were easy to overlook

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

It's January 2013, but there are still some seasons from 2012 that can sneak up on you if you didn't pay attention the first time.

This is a pretty telling idea for an article. You can translate to: "A baseball writer admits he is bad at his job." But there are just so many baseball players. Why, there must be over a hundred of them, easy. And over the course of a 162-game season, it's easy to miss some of the ups and downs.

In the offseason, though, there's more time to spin around the 30 different team pages on Baseball Reference or FanGraphs. And every so often, a player's contribution will make me do a double-take. Wait, did that season really happen? Why was I not informed? It makes me feel like a fool, and then I fire an intern.

Here are the five most surprising, "Wait, he did what?" seasons of 2012.

5. Andrelton Simmons

Defensive stats are getting better and better, but most of them are still dependent on human tallying, and defensive samples will always be small and frustrating. Was Darwin Barney really as valuable as Albert Pujols and Dustin Pedroia last year, despite a .299 on-base percentage? I'm skeptical that Bill Mazeroski with a Portal gun would be worth almost four wins with the glove alone.

So it's hard to get too excited about single-season Wins Above Replacement. But when you run a list of the best shortstops in the National League last year by Baseball Reference's WAR, you get this list:

1. Starlin Castro (3.5)
2. Ian Desmond (3.2)
3. Jose Reyes (2.8)
4. Andrelton Simmons (2.8)

Which … okay, maybe it's a surprise that Simmons is that high, seeing as he was a) a midseason call-up, and b) hurt last year. But here's another stat for those four players: plate appearances.

1. Jose Reyes (716)
2. Starlin Castro (691)
3. Ian Desmond (547)
4. Andrelton Simmons (182)

The 22-year-old hit better than expected -- .289/.335/.416, which was pretty close to his career line in the minors -- but it was his defense that pumped up the value. And how. He had 426 innings in the field last year, yet he still ranked fourth in the N.L. for defensive WAR, and first in the N.L. for TotalZone runs. His 16 runs saved in 2012 are one behind Walt Weiss's career total.

Again, defensive stats -- especially over a small sample -- aren't infallible. But if you thought Simmons showed promise last year, you might have missed that he was already doing things most shortstops can't do.

4. Junichi Tazawa

Since 1916, 13 relievers have thrown more than 40 innings with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nine or better. Dennis Eckersley did it three times in a row, from 1989 through 1991. Doug Jones did it in 1997. But all of the others have done it in the high-strikeout era of the past decade. More hitters are striking out, and more relievers are taking advantage of them.

Tazawa is one of those relievers on the list. And even if it's a high-strikeout era, it's still pretty danged impressive. In 44 innings last year, he walked five and struck out 45. Here's how he does it:

I'm not sure if I had ever seen him pitch before. Look at the catcher in that video. He doesn't have to move.

Tazawa also pitched 42 innings in the minors last year. He walked 17 batters. So it's probably not a good idea to expect this kind of command from him in the future. But he sure was great in 2012.

3. Justin Maxwell

I watch the Astros for the GIFs, mostly. But what I missed with the baseball stuff was that the 28-year-old Maxwell had a pretty nifty season. He wasn't great -- he hit .229 with a .304 on-base percentage, striking out in almost a third of his plate appearances -- but he hit 18 home runs. He's a big guy, 6'5", and his right-handed power (and lefty-mashing splits) will fit very nicely on someone's bench one of these seasons.

He came to the Astros in April off waivers from the Yankees, who have spent the offseason looking for competent right-handed bench bats. They probably would have done things a little differently if they could, as Maxwell would be a perfect fit for the Yankees' current roster.

Maybe I'm just amazed that there were any positive surprises for the Astros at all last year. It's probably a bit much to expect Maxwell to be an every-day player, but turning a 2012 waiver claim into a semi-prospect is the kind of move that helps get the worst teams out of the deepest holes. It's up to Maxwell to fend off regression, and it's up to the Astros to realize he probably isn't going to be a part of their future.

2. Scott Diamond

He wasn't great. And considering his absurdly low strikeout rate, he might never be as good again. But the first Binghamton University player to play in the majors was valuable for the Twins last year. And not just as a foot soldier in the team's holy war against the strikeout.

Here's what he was doing in 2011:

Year Age Lev W L ERA IP H HR BB SO
2011 24 AAA 4 14 5.56 123.0 158 11 36 90

In 2012, though, he threw 173 innings and had a 115 ERA+, also leading the league in fewest walks per nine innings. I had no idea. Probably because my eyes glossed over and read his name as "Generic Twins Pitcher" every time I was on the Twins' Baseball Reference page.

1. Carlos Gomez

The inspiration for this article, Gomez has long fascinated scouts. After Yoenis Cespedes set the baseball world abuzz with his infamous scouting video, Brewers GM Doug Melvin spoke to Ken Rosenthal:

Gomez’s tools are so impressive that Melvin says if you put him in a tryout camp, he’d generate the same type of buzz among scouts that Yoenis Cespedes did last winter.

Defense has never been a problem with Carlos Gomez.

Defense has rarely been a problem with Carlos Gomez. But in 2012, he displayed other tools. He hit a career-high 19 home runs, nearly doubling his career total. He also set a career high in steals with 37, getting caught just six times. He kept his OBP over .300 for the first time in his career, and added a .463 slugging percentage. His OPS+ was 102, which combines with the speed and defense to make a quite valuable player.

Gomez was the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade, and now you can see why. It doesn't take that much for him to be a positive contributor to a team. In 2012, everything started to come together for the first time.

And I had no idea until it was all over. Seriously, just e-mail me these things next time.

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